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Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

How Jim Flaherty scaled the summit Add to ...

The G20's efforts to take action over soaring government debt levels started with a candid dinner meeting at the Canadian embassy in Washington this spring.

During a free-wheeling discussion by G7 finance ministers in Washington in April - tacked on to semi-annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - members fully came to grips with the threat of the Greek debt crisis, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recalled in an interview Sunday.

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"I, as chair, abandoned the agenda and we talked directly for more than two hours about Greece and other serious sovereign debt situations in Europe," Mr. Flaherty said. "And that was the beginning of the very serious discussion that leads to today, where we're talking about the same thing actually."

The discussion was followed by a flurry of face-to-face meetings and international conference calls that Mr. Flaherty chaired as political leaders scrambled for a plan to calm panicking investors.

The result was a European Union bailout package in the first week of May that failed to calm markets. Mr. Flaherty then chaired a four-hour conference call May 9 that led to the so-called "shock and awe" efforts by the EU and IMF to backstop European debt - a $1-trillion (U.S.) bailout package that sent markets flying higher as fears of default abated.

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With the close of the Toronto summit, Canada's Finance Minister now hands the G20 reins to South Korea after chairing both the G20 and G7 (whose finance ministers meet as the G7 rather than the G8) during a time of near-constant fear of a double dip recession.

Should history prove the G20's actions this year succeeded in staving off the financial collapse of its most vulnerable members, Mr. Flaherty will deserve credit for organizing much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

While he will continue to chair G7 phone calls this year, key staff changes in his department underscore that Mr. Flaherty's time at the heart of the action has come to an end.

His associate deputy minister, Tiff Macklem, begins a new job July 1 as senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada. Four days later, his assistant deputy minister, Graham Flack, moves on to a senior position at Public Safety Canada. The two policy experts played key roles for Mr. Flaherty, representing Canada in the officials' meetings that hammer out the wording of G20 agreements.

Beyond the debt debate, Mr. Flaherty's time chairing the G7 and G20 meetings was marked by a successful campaign against a global bank tax and pressure on China to let its currency fluctuate - an effort that has so far produced mixed results.

Jeffrey Owens, director of tax policy for the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, said Mr. Flaherty has shown leadership in getting G20 members to crack down on tax havens with new sanctions.

"That's a big success," he said.

Much of what was announced in Toronto was agreed to earlier this month, when G20 finance ministers met in Busan, South Korea, for a meeting co-chaired by Canada and South Korea, which hosts the next G20 leaders summit in November.

In Busan, it became clear that Mr. Flaherty had won the bank tax battle and that banking reforms would not be agreed to until November.

But the key controversy dealt with in Toronto - clear timelines for reducing deficits and debt - was "left in the dark" in Busan, according to Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega, who stood in for Brazil's president in Toronto.

Mr. Mantega said Busan "didn't accomplish much," in part because the political debate around withdrawing stimulus spending needed clear decisions from leaders.

Mr. Flaherty counters that he has been working directly with many G20 countries to support specific targets, including his recent travels to South America, India and China.

He said those stronger relationships with emerging economies will be the lasting benefit for Canada in chairing the G20.

"This is a realignment in a way," he said. "It's a recognition that there are other strong, growing, powerful economies in the word that Canada can have a relationship with, as well as with the Americans and Europeans. It's actually a major development in terms of our place in the world."

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